January 30, 2007

Spiritual intimacy, Part III
Corporate practice

I remain perplexed and frustrated by the difficulty I have with articulating my yearning for Friends to reclaim or understand the corporate nature of our faith. I laugh at myself sometimes, though, (1) because it isn't up to me to have our corporate practices revitalized; and (2) because I think I have seen clear examples of moving together as a body in the most unexpected places, like television reality shows.

Take the television show The Biggest Loser, for example. One of the episodes had the remaining contestants do a mini-triathalon of swimming, biking, and running. If I remember correctly, they were no longer in teams at this point of the show; they were competing individually.

During the swimming, one of the men just couldn't keep up and in fact seemed to be struggling. The other women and men were pretty far along in the swimming portion of the challenge, but one of the contestants called out to the group and suggested to them that they swim back to the struggling swimmer. They ended up all finishing the swimming portion together; no one had balked at the idea of being slowed down by their fellow contestant (unless of course it was edited out!); and the group all began the second leg of the triathalon together, too.

The corporate nature of our faith is something like that, moving together as a group, in synch with the Spirit and with each other, as to how fast to move, what direction to head, and how to get the finish line--together. Sometimes it means waiting on a single Friend who seems to be struggling and who clearly wants to be connected with and bound to the movement of the group. Sometimes it means we must labor with that Friend until at least he or she is clear that the work of the Spirit is somehow being impeded, and so he or she must yield and, as we say, "stand aside."

When we engage in corporate discernment, when we take the time to welcome a new committee member and bring that Friend up to speed, or when we involve even the youngest community member in our meetinghouse clean-up days, we are extending an opportunity for growing and moving together. We are demonstrating a bit of spiritual hospitality that, when our own time of struggle comes, might be extended to us.

It is not only a case of "Let us try what Love can do."

It is also a case of Let Love try us.


Spiritual intimacy, the original post in the series
Spiritual intimacy, part II
The slippery nature of our corporate faith

January 19, 2007

Spiritual intimacy, Part II

When I was working on a previous post on this topic, the original version of it included additional thoughts and reflections about the nature of spiritual intimacy. What follows below is Part Two of that original post and expands on some of those concepts. --Liz
One way I have heard others explain intimacy is to think about intimacy like this:
Intimacy means INTO ME SEE, see into me.
Just like I can't see into--or out of--a house if the blinds are always drawn, no matter how brightly lit the interior is, so it is that if we are going to nurture spiritual intimacy with one another, to know one another in that which is Eternal, we are going to have to lift up the shades and even--gasp!--open the front door and invite people in.

We're also going to have to knock on other people's doors and accept their invitation to stay for a while and visit, too.

If we're going to strengthen our sense of spiritual community and deepen our spiritual intimacy with one another, we'll have to hone and cultivate our gifts of spiritual hospitality, both as individuals and as a corporate body.

Spiritual intimacy and spiritual hospitality go hand in hand. As newcomers, we're received and welcomed with a friendly handshake and a gentle question or two. It's only after we have observed a commitment from others who make the time to hear and absorb our answers that we will hang around awhile: we feel a sense of warmth and care as a result of their attention and presence to us. And when the friendly handshakes, gentle questions, and gift of time extend beyond a first and second visit, we are likely to start sharing, bit by bit, more of our lives, our concerns, and--horrors!--our vulnerabilities.

We have to be diligent and intentional, though, to maintain this practice of spiritual hospitality to those Friends who have been among us for years, not just days. And our meetings will have to come under the weight of valuing spiritual intimacy if we wish to know one another deeply as a community.

It's taken me nearly a dozen years among Friends to understand what spiritual hospitality means, and how it connects to spiritual intimacy.

Imagine that you are traveling to visit two sets of relatives. One set of relatives hurry you into the house, squeeze your suitcase into a cluttered bedroom, ask the kids to take their video games and CDs off of the bed where you'll sleep, and tell you all about how busy their lives are, what the kids are doing after school, and what sort of errands need to be accomplished before they see you off in a few days.

The other set of relatives that you visit hold the door open for you when you come in. They give you a chance to catch your breath. Then they might ask if you'd like to get settled in your room or have something to drink first. When you get to your room, you see the bed is made with fresh linens; clean towels are put out; and there's even space in the closet for you to hang a few things. When you rejoin the group for some conversation, they ask you what you've been up to, why are you traveling just then, and what else is capturing your attention these days.

Similarly, our verbal greeting and initial conversation is a doorway through which others step into our spiritual home. The same can be said about our nonverbal space and our nonverbal welcome: if we ignore our visitors, or if we greet them only after we have said hello to the fFriends whom we know, that sends a message too about whether or not we wish to get to know more about them.

The triad: Spiritual welcome, spiritual intimacy, and spiritual hospitality

Spiritual welcome, spiritual hospitality, and spiritual intimacy are interconnected: each one plays a part with the remaining two.

We might be gifted in welcoming newcomers (spiritual welcome) and in providing charming, restful overnight accommodations to traveling Friends (spiritual hospitality), but we may fail to engage in the tender sharing of what lives and beats in our hearts from week to week, from Friend to Friend (spiritual intimacy).

We might be gifted in nurturing emerging ministries (spiritual hospitality) and in sharing our struggles and triumphs (spiritual intimacy), but we may be cool or lukewarm to welcoming visitors who find their way to meeting (spiritual welcome).

Or we might make a special effort to greet visitors (welcome) and do well to provide structures for learning of our spiritual journeys (intimacy), but we may fail to call out Friends to bring forward their full measure of Light (hospitality).

And yes, each of these three parts of the triad sometimes is very close to one or both of the other parts. My examples may be missing the mark, but I hope my intention comes through.

The me-and-you, give-and-receive of spiritual intimacy

There are at least four parts to nurturing the sort of spiritual intimacy and spiritual fabric to which I'm referring:
    1. Be willing to express your own vulnerabilities and struggles;

    2. Be willing to express your own experiences of being drawn close to the Divine;

    3. Be present to others' expression of their vulnerabilities and struggles;

    4. Be present to others' expression of their being drawn close to the Divine.

Sometimes what gets in our way of engaging in any of these four opportunities for spiritual intimacy is our own discomfort--either in sharing such delicate experiences or in witnessing what someone else is sharing.

Other times, what gets in our way is a lack of feeling emotionally or spiritually safe: Do we know how to listen compassionately to one another, without judgment and without giving advice?

More than that,
Do we know how to listen to one another in such a way that we feel "called out" and met with loving tenderness?
Do we observe exchanges between experienced Friends that model for ourselves what spiritual intimacy of such give-and-receive looks like? Or do we more often observe exchanges where one Friend or another feels shut down, closed off, or... diminished in some fashion?

Creating and sustaining spiritual intimacy is slow and tender work. There are generational, gender-based, personal, societal, cultural, and other influences that interfere with our ability to move into a more spiritually intimate frame together. Some Friends must overcome the message that "we don't air our dirty laundry." Other Friends must work against the negative self-talk that they are "not good enough." And still other Friends will have to counter the message that "what's in the past should stay in the past."

In addition, what helps one Friend feel welcome and safe will not be the same thing that helps the next Friend feel welcome and safe. And while some Friends are able to articulate what helps them feel safe enough to share their vulnerabilities, other Friends may feel manipulated by such open acknowledgement of what helps them.

Yet I have to wonder if, in our first wondrous experiences of waiting worship, if we had unknowingly felt a Hospitality, a Welcome, and an Intimacy that spoke to our conditions deeply... that beckoned us to return... that still beckons us to "dwell deep," to seek to know God, and to strive to know and call out the Light that is within each of us.

I wonder if we, in our meetings, can open that Door for one another and step inside.


OTHER POSTS in the series on spiritual intimacy
The previous post (Part I)
The next post (Part III)

RELATED POST - Richard M's call to share our stories of "the center"

January 9, 2007

Spiritual intimacy

As I was walking out of the meetingroom this past First Day, I approached a Friend whom I have not seen at worship for several years. It was a Friend I had met only a few times before she had stopped attending, so I didn't expect to get involved in any sort of deep conversation.

It may have been a New Year's resolution on her and her partner's part to return to worship more regularly, and she expressed that it felt good to be among Friends again. She asked if I came regularly to that particular meeting for worship, and I answered yes, a couple of times a month, in addition to attending the worship group that's been around for a few years.

The Friend asked me how that was going and how large a group it was. When I told her we were rather small--but still growing--she joked that perhaps it was "worship for introverts." I laughed too, but then I added:

Actually, we've had someone come once who said the worship group wasn't for her because it was so intimate, and she felt she couldn't be anonymous there. I think it's not so much about being introverts as much as it is that, as a worship group, we are very much about seeing one another and about being seen, by God.
Spiritual intimacy can be the result of worship experiences that are grounded in corporate seeking as well as in sharing what our understanding is of how we are being called to serve and what we are wrestling with, both as individuals and as faith communities.

But spiritual intimacy must not be taken for granted. Our meetings and worship groups must be intentional about creating and safeguarding opportunities where we can ask one another how our relationship with the Divine is going; what we are wrestling with; where and how we are finding spiritual nurture. When those opportunities are reduced or dropped altogether in the place of social exchanges, peace rallies, and committee meetings, the foundation of our covenant community can begin to crumble.

Even our potlucks can undermine the knitting together of our covenant communities, if the meals morph into solely having a good time without discovering how it is within one another's souls and how we are faring with living into our measure of Light.

What's more, as new families and new attenders arrive at our meetings, they typically will pick up on how the rest of us engage with each other outside of worship: Do we talk about our Quakerism? Do we talk about our children? Do we talk about our week at the office?

If we restrict to waiting worship our reflection and expression of our spiritual encounters with the Divine, and if we dedicate our post-worship time to peace-and-justice announcements and activities, is it no wonder that those who are new to Friends come to see our meetings for worship as a place where what matters isn't so much about God in our lives as it is about having the hour of "silence" together, followed by the activities that encourage our apparent shared values?

Not that that's a bad thing; just that there is more to being a Friend than being able to sit in silence and then "go invisible" afterwards. There is the journey of learning to be obedient to the Spirit, and the acceptance of the very real possibility that at any moment, we can be changed, we can be transformed by the Light that shines within us.


OTHER POSTS in the series on Spiritual intimacy:
The next post (part II)
The post after that one (part III)

Members One of Another, by Thomas Gates.

January 1, 2007

Faith without love?

During worship this past First Day at the monthly meeting, an older Friend rose and shared with us that he is struggling with the idea of faith.

"Has faith become a meaningless virtue?" he asked. "Because if George W. Bush and I both are labeled as people of faith, as 'believers,' then what does 'faith' or 'being a believer' mean?"
Later during worship, when the meeting moved into its customary worship-sharing mode for those items that were still weighing on Friends' hearts but had not risen to the level of vocal ministry, a number of other Friends spoke about their own wrestling with what 'having faith' means.

I was surprised at my own inward stirrings. What I was hearing from these Friends was running counter to my own experience of how God was covering me just then, that we are required to love and not just have faith.

I found myself unexpectantly reflecting on these two texts, the first of which I readily understood the connection; the second left me perplexed:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
--1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NIV)

"I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
--Matthew 19:16-24 (NIV)
I am still caught off guard when parts of Scripture rise for me in worship. I am so new to the Bible; I've never read either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian texts straight through.

Sometimes I fear I only look at those parts of the text that reflect back to me my own thoughts, feelings, and concerns. This particular morning, though, I began to worry that our meetings could be doing a better job nurturing Friends whose faith is languishing or whose faith seems to be rooted in shallow or sandy soil.

This particular morning, my heart turned toward the questions,
What IS faith without love?
If faith without love is so unpleasant and undesirable, then is it more important to have love; to have love without faith...?
I know myself to have experienced and to have expressed "faith without love." It is an aggressive, righteous expression of faith, a statement that says "I'm right and you're wrong." I have not liked myself when I have known myself to have come from that loveless-but-faithful place.

But what about experiencing and expressing love even when one doesn't have faith...? I have known those times as well. And somehow that seems... closer... to what God intended. It reminds me of the story of the Good Samaritan.

As for the "eye of the needle" quote, I am reminded of how hard it is to give up my material wealth and my wealth based on what I want, in order that I keep my "eye on the prize," to keep God at the center of my life. ...Faith in a life filled with earthly riches certainly confuses my priorities!

Oooh, I sense a movement within me that feels very, very big. And I recognize I am not ready to look at it yet. So I will stop here and see how these questions and the Spirit might exercise me.


RELATED POST: The Creeds I've Known - Being Faithful, Being Loving